Closing the door on tomb picnics

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 September, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 September, 1998, 12:00am

A picnic at one of the ruined Ming tombs has for so long been the most endearing pleasure of expatriate life in Beijing, that it is sad to record its passing.

In the past few weeks the authorities have been putting up steel fences around the entrances and at some of the tombs workmen are busy repairing the crumbling red walls.

Only two of the 13 tombs have been turned into museums, while the remainder have stood empty and ignored.

Peasants were left to grow corn or plant cabbages inside the fading crimson walls. Some stabled mules in the arches above the vaults where princesses and emperors rested for eternity.

Above the tombs, a profusion of decaying roof beams poke out among the yellow tiles which have been slowly succumbing to gravity over the centuries.

Swallows nest among the floating eaves from which the paint has long since vanished and, on summer evenings, bats swoop among the woods growing in an enclosure behind.

Evergreen cypress trees grow out of steps and between walls, pushing aside tiles and mighty stone slabs with an effortless and invisible strength.

Lopsided stone steles inscribed with records of past merits and titles, carried precariously on the backs of immortal turtles, are lost among the trees. Grass grows over marble paths leading to bridges poised across streams or moats filled with reeds and croaking frogs.

Here at last one can breathe in a sense of an unchanging China fixed forever in a romantic decay gilded by the heady fragrance of apple and peach blossom which wafts across from the orchards all around.

The sense of antiquity and past glories, though, holds few attractions for the average Chinese trying to flee the past into a modern future. So for decades long-term residents of Beijing have escaped from the summer heat to open a hamper and a bottle of wine on the sacrificial stone tables. For once the madding crowds of China and its infuriating bureaucracy are gone and forgotten in this tranquillity.

At the back of some of the tombs, there are still fading signs in English and Chinese warning foreigners not to proceed any further without permission. Even in the Cultural Revolution, this was still one place, indeed the only place, foreign diplomats could drive without permission, provided of course they went no further.

In later years, some foreigners have even hosted luncheon parties, hiring cooks and chefs from Beijing's best hotels to flatter visiting CEOs from head office.

Now alas, the Ming Tomb Special Zone Administrative Office has decided to make some money out of these tombs.

'People can still come here for camping or for a picnic, but they can't come whenever they like as they used to. They must contact us first for approval,' explained Mr Hao, a spokesman at the Changping county government. 'We want to bring this under control.' What this means is that the local government wants to start charging money. Anyone who wants to film there will be charged 8,000 yuan (HK$7,500) a day per tomb. But Mr Hao insists he is acting from the purest of motives.

'We don't do it for money. We do it to protect the relics and the environment. You can imagine how damaging picnics are,' he insisted.

So how much will a picnic cost? 'There is not a set price yet. Call us to negotiate it,' Mr Hao said. 'But if anyone wants to come, my office is the only one to go through.'